Disappearing Agents

'Just an old man, telling his story.'

As I've posted on here before, I've given up looking for an agent. I've done better without one over the past decade or more since last I had one. Although if somebody came along asking if they might try to sell my foreign and/or translation rights for me, I'd give it a go. 

It pains me when I see writers just starting out on their careers, firmly believing that once they've secured an agent, success will be practically guaranteed. The only people I know who continue to propagate this myth are agents. And in the immortal words of Mandy Rice Davies, they would, wouldn't they? 

However, a recent online conversation with a friend prompted me to remember my 'disappearing agents'. Because I had three of them. I had more agents than that, and a couple of them were good. But I changed what and how I wrote over a long career, which meant that a change of agent wasn't entirely out of the question. 

Disappearing Agent Number One

My first disappearing agent head-hunted me from a previous agency, by promising me the earth. Actually, not quite the earth. But she did promise to kick start my career as a playwright all over again. I was doing rather well with stage plays at the time and with some television and plenty of radio thrown in for good measure. My previous agent, although very efficient in terms of increasing my rates of pay, was London based (as are most agencies). This new one had travelled from London to open an office in Glasgow, and promised to liaise with various theatres south of the border, facilitate introductions, find opportunities and so on. 

I liked my previous agent a lot, but the relationship seemed to have grown a bit stale. I think the tipping point was when I spent the best part of a year working on a proposal for and with a large Scottish media company, only to have them reject the project entirely. This wasn't an unsolicited submission. I had worked for them before, they had expressed interest in it, and had me working with a (paid) script editor for months on end. But they had paid me no development money at all, not a bean, and no kill fee either. It struck me quite forcefully that a new agent might at least widen my horizons. So I left my old agent, amicably enough, and waited.

She disappeared. So did the office. She wrote to me later to apologise. I sometimes think I have had more apologies for incompetence than rejection slips.

Disappearing Agent Number Two 

This involves a situation far too complicated and boring to go into in a blog post. In short, there was a great schism in the agenting world and a plaintive request to stick with her personally as she moved on. So I did. Unfortunately, within months, her situation changed to the extent that she inherited a number of starry (and lucrative) clients and guess who fell off the bottom of her list? My last submission to her was The Physic Garden, which an intern read and dismissed out of hand as 'just an old man, telling his story'. After that, as the saying goes here in Scotland, my bum was well and truly 'oot the windae'. 

Disappearing Agent Number Three

This one really did disappear. I signed up to a reputable small agency where he worked, only to have him leave to set up on his own account within the year. Nobody asked me if I wanted to leave with him. They just assumed I would. Eventually, he set up an office in Glasgow (Is Glasgow a sort of black hole for agencies, I wonder?) and I went along to a laughably named launch event, which involved a plastic cup of warm white wine in a chaotic little room, with one other person. Soon after that, he went completely incommunicado. There was no response to phonecalls or emails. Since the office was part of a complex of offices for rent, I eventually managed to call the main desk where somebody confirmed that nobody had been in for weeks, and the mail was piling up. I still have no idea what became of him. 

Going It Alone

After that, I decided to go it alone, and guess what? With a mixture of traditional and self publishing, I started to do rather well. The excellent Saraband published the 'old man telling his story' aka the Physic Garden, and went on to publish more of my fiction and non-fiction. 

Surprisingly enough, I have very occasionally thought it might be nice to have an agent. I even went so far as to send a couple of query letters. I got one or two nibbles, but nothing more. I'm too old for them now - they don't think they'll make enough money out of me and that's understandable. But in any case, perhaps because I am so much older and wiser, I'd want a different kind of relationship. A business partnership which doesn't cast me in the role of humble supplicant. Which is why I still think it might be good to find somebody who would undertake the specialised business of trying to sell the foreign and translation rights to the work I already have out there. I'm not holding my breath. 

Finally - why am I writing this? 

I remember chatting to another client of one of these disappearing agents, a new, young writer, whose hopes had been raised by all the promises, only to have them dashed by the grim reality. What really bugged me was that she was strung along for a couple of years. I was in touch with her and advised her to cut her losses, send a formal letter dispensing with the agent's (non existent) services,  and get on with writing something new. I don't know if she ever did it, but I do remember her disappointment. I was fine. I had a body of work, and options. But she had been counting on promises that were never going to be fulfilled. 

I only hope she picked herself up, dusted herself off, and carried on writing. 


Unknown said…
Fascinating read, Catherine. As a very late-comer to writing, I have never had any expectation of attracting interest from the world of agents, nor have I ever sought to attract their attention. From what you have written, and also from anecdotes heard from other successful writers,I am glad that I have speared myself the associated trauma. It's bad enough getting rejections, without being let down by supposed allies.
I wouldn't want to put anyone off trying, if they wanted to try to get an agent. As I said in the post - I've had a couple of helpful ones. But I don't think they're essential. And I know that I'm not the only one with horror stories. I also think that nowadays contracts can be very complicated - and unless you're with a big agency, with a dedicated legal department, things can become tricky.